Wednesday's shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington fed an evolving story about right-wing extremism in America. Even as both sides play hot potato in trying to label the shooter far right or far left, suddenly Janet Napolitano's April memo about an upswing in right-wing violence seemed prescient. The murder of abortion doctor George Tiller in May was no longer a single incident, but part of a trend: right-wing domestic terrorism.
As this narrative of a resurgent, violent right has emerged, so has considerable confusion about what it means to be a right-wing extremist.
Both liberals and conservatives gain from confusing conservatism and the fringe right. Liberals use it to dismiss all conservatives; conservatives use it, as they are doing in the case of Secretary Napolitano's memo, to paint themselves as victims of a liberal establishment.
But whatever political points can be scored from such confusion, it stands in the way of honest political engagement.
We no longer talk about the responsible right and the irresponsible right, a taxonomy dating back to the 1960s, when conservatism began garnering national attention.
In 1961, stories about the "radical right" and "ultraconservatives" began appearing in major periodicals. Most journalists took little care to separate out the crackpots – a New York Times article, for instance, noted no difference between the National Review magazineand the American Nazi Party. The troubling tendency to lump all right-wing groups together was not confined to newspapers. The Kennedy administration did it, too.
Consider a 1961 report written for the administration by Walter and Victor Reuther, brothers and powerful union organizers. The 24-page document, known as the Reuther memo, discussed the dangers posed by the radical right.
The memo defined the radical right as "bounded on the left by Senator Goldwater and on the right by Robert Welch," head of the Birch Society. (Today's equivalent might be "bounded on the left by Mitt Romney and on the right by talk show host Glenn Beck.")
The memo's most disturbing element, however, was the recommendation that the administration use the tools of government to deal with the radical right. The Reuthers advocated use of the attorney general's subversive list (typically reserved for communist groups), the Internal Revenue Service, and the Federal Communications Commission to break up right-wing organizations and media efforts.
The Reuther memo had an effect: In 1963, the FCC singled out conservative groups when outlining how the Fairness Doctrine should be applied to political broadcasting.
Conservatives felt the full consequences of their tangle with the radical right when conservative standard-bearer Sen. Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination for president. From the convention in July 1964 to Senator Goldwater's defeat in November, major media outlets painted the senator as dangerously unstable and linked him to the fringiest of the right-wing fringe.
In the wake of Goldwater's defeat, conservative leaders like those at the National Review did everything in their power to muscle the radical right out of the movement. They understood that as long as they could be dismissed as lunatics, their ideas would not be heard.
Like their 1960s counterparts, today's conservatives are finding themselves uncomfortably lumped with a radical – now violent – right.
So far, the Obama administration has not contributed to the confusion. The worst it has done is cast Rush Limbaugh as de facto leader of the Republican Party, a political move that allows the administration to discredit Republicans by tarring them with Limbaugh's more incendiary statements.
Even this, though, is a disturbing trend, because it shows a willingness to treat political opponents disingenuously. Presenting Limbaugh as head of the GOP has limited consequences. But should the administration cast a wider net in light of the events of the past few weeks – should President Obama decide to mirror Kennedy – then the integrity of the democratic process is at stake.
To avoid such an outcome, the administration must reject the cynical politics that pretends that radical outliers represent the core of the opposition.
Meanwhile, those in conservative media should show circumspection as well. Reacting to attacks on the fringe right as though they were mortars lobbed at conservatives only adds to the confusion over who is who.
Had prominent conservatives such as Sean Hannity, Michelle Malkin, and Lou Dobbs taken Napolitano's memo for what it was – a warning about violent groups – rather than what would score the most political points, we might be less likely to mistake one for the other.
It will take the effort of both conservatives and liberals to untangle the confusion over the radical right. But if it leads to a more honest political dialogue, it will be well worth the effort.
Nicole Hemmer is currently a fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia and a PhD candidate in history at Columbia University. She is writing a history of conservative media.